A talk by Graham Bower, 22nd July 2010
Every morning on my way into work, I used to travel in the opposite direction to the rest of the rush hour traffic. I don’t know why, but it had always been that way. It was more than a coincidence. It was a pattern. The choices I made, like where I chose to live, where I chose to work and what transport I chose to take took me in the opposite direction to everyone else. As a result, I always found myself pushing against the crowd. The loner in the group.
It had always been that way for me until last year, when I realized that my life had taken a profound turn in direction.
I was running the London Marathon when it struck me. For the first time in my life, I was heading in the same direction as the crowd. Together with thirty-five thousand fellow runners, we were all heading towards the same finish line. We share the same purpose. The same goal. The same values. I wasn’t a loner any more. I felt connected. I was part of something bigger.
This was a profound change for me. A long and painful journey had led me to the start line of my first marathon. And it had all started in a doctors consulting room when I was the recipient of some unwelcome news.
“We are the lucky ones”
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After lots of tests and surgery, I was prescribed chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Fortunately, I responded so well to the chemo, that it turned out the radiotherapy was not necessary. Although my cancer is not curable, three years later I’m still here and there’s been no relapse. Which makes me very lucky.
My chemo was tough - although not half as bad as the regimes that some patients endure. Nonetheless, I had serious allergic reactions to my drugs, and some very bad infections. It was one of the most challenging moments in my life.
And yet, as I look back on the events of 2007, I find that I’m very glad that it happened. The experience precipitated some major changes in my life, and most of them were for the better. It may seem paradoxical, but it turns out that my experience is far from unique. The nurses at my hospital tell me it is quite common for patients to respond in this way.
In the autobiography of Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and world-champion cyclist, he expressed a similar sentiment. When he was initially diagnosed, he received many letters from well wishers. One, from a cancer survivor, said: “you can’t know this yet, but we are the lucky ones.” At the time, wracked with fear and uncertainty, he naturally concluded that the letter writer was crazy. And yet, when he recalled these words after his treatment, he came to understand their wisdom.
Finding the positive intention
Of course, anyone whose treatment for cancer is successful is lucky, but I don’t think that is what the letter writer meant. He meant that we are lucky to experience cancer - regardless of the outcome. This may seem like a shocking idea. Or even a crazy one. But it’s actually similar to one of the beliefs of excellence in Sue Knight’s book NLP At Work: “behind every behavior there is a positive intention”. We can choose to believe that even cancer has a positive intention towards us.
For someone undergoing treatment, this “crazy” idea can be a very empowering belief. It is also a very general statement, open to broad interpretation. It allows us to negotiate our own path through the experience, and find our own meaning.
This is the story of the path I took. My own personal journey through treatment and recovery - and the lessons I learned along the ways from some very wise and brave teachers.
I came to view the cancer as a kind of test, or trial. And to my surprise, I realized that I had passed it. Passing the test did not mean getting well. Credit where credit it due, that was mostly thanks to the doctors. No, passing the test involved discovering that I was stronger than I had ever realized, and that the experience of recovering from cancer was what enabled me to release this untapped resource of strength.
“People never change”
At first, my diagnosis seemed like nothing more than random bad luck. Something else to add to what I thought was my ever growing list of problems. But the truth is that it dwarfed all of my other problems, to such an extent that I knew carrying on as normal was no longer an option. I had got a little too comfortable grumbling. But this was something that I would have to address head on, because, like it or not, it was big, and real, and coming my way.
I had always believed that people never change. That we are born predestined to be the way that we are. But now, I had to hope that I was wrong. I realised that I was going to have to change my ways to survive, and that perhaps this was cancer’s positive intention for me. It was an undeniable, inescapable instigator for change.
But how was I going to change?
“I don’t know anything”
In the movie Avatar, there is a moment where the hero is challenged by a tribal leader, who asks him what he knows. Previous visitors to this tribe have been scientists and soldiers. They had all brought their preconceptions with them. But our hero believes that he is not supposed to be there. He was a last minute substitution. So he answers the tribal leader by saying “I don’t know anything”. The tribal leader is impressed, and grants our hero unprecedented access to the tribe in response. He recognises that “I don’t know anything” is the starting point of wisdom.
Through luck rather than judgement, I’d arrived at a point in my life where I didn’t know anything. I had no idea how to go about making the changes that were long overdue. But my need for change would drive me to explore options that I would previous have rejected. I read books that I would once have scorned as “mumbo-jumbo”. One book, in particular, made a deep impression on me at the time: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman.
I tried things that I previously had no interest in, like NLP, meditation, running and the gym.
“This is a difficult moment for you. Are you paying attention to it?”
Before my diagnosis, I’d lived the first 37 years of my life in a state of lifelessness. Not really happy. Not really sad. Not really feeling much at all. My life had little flavour or colour. And, perhaps most important of all, no sense of meaning. Of course, I wasn’t aware of this at the time. I wasn’t really paying attention as my life went by. I was sleepwalking through it, barely experiencing anything. Always worrying about the future and agonizing about the past, but never really focusing on the present.
Until one day, I walked into a consulting room at my local hospital and the doctor told me I had cancer. That got my attention.
The nurse told me that I must be very shocked. But that’s not how I felt. I felt surprised. Surprised and something else. Like I’d just been abruptly woken from a very long sleep.
Like I was fully awake, for the first time in my life. Perhaps that is why, to this day, I still can describe every tiny detail of that scene, right down to the bland decor of that nondescript room, and the consultant’s unconvincing attempt at a reassuring smile.
Suddenly, I found myself completely focused on the moment. As someone who had never practiced meditation, I was about to get a crash course in mindfulness. For the first time in my life, I was living in the moment.
Goodbye reassurance junkie
Looking back, I realise that I had learned to repeat a certain pattern of behavior over and over again. One that only served to make me very unhappy, and maybe even precipitated the advance of my cancer.
I had become addicted to reassurance, or to put it another way, I was a worrier.
As a former worrier, I can maybe explain to those who don’t suffer from this affliction, what it’s all about. Worriers don’t like worrying, even though they spend their whole lives doing it. They crave reassurance. They become so hooked on it, that they’ll belligerently worry about anything, just to experience the high they receive from reassurance when it finally comes.
Quite quickly with my cancer diagnosis, however, I realised that this kind of reassurance was never going to come. Diagnosis and treatment was going to take months. And even if the treatment was a success, the doctors were still promising only “remission,” not a cure. However I looked at it, I could see that there was no path to reassurance through this experience. For the first time in my life, I started to see the futility of worrying.
Where it all started
I believe that we make the best choices that are available to us at the time. Sadly, however, once we have made a choice, we have a tendency to stick to it long past its sell-by date. And as a result, we pass up on endless opportunities to make better choices as time goes by.
Many years ago, I made the choice to become a worrier. I was 12 years old, and I’d recently started at a new school. I was walking home one sunny afternoon, when I realised that I’d forgotten my P.E. kit. I must have left it in the changes rooms at school.
There was an obvious course of action at this point would have been to calmly walk back to school, find my P.E. kit where I’d left it in the changing room, and then head back for home. But that is not what I chose to do. Instead, I chose to panic. I ran back to the school as quickly as my legs would carry me, allowing my mind to race as I considered what the worst possible scenario was for my P.E. kit. Even as I was doing this, a part of me knew that my P.E. kit was almost certainly still where I’d left it, and I would experience an overwhelming sense of relief and reassurance when I found it there. And sure enough, it was and I did.
The pattern of behaviour had worked. A crescendo of anxiety, fueled by “what’s the worst that could happen” self-talk, had led to a rush of reassurance. I was hooked and I wanted more. A lot more. Over the following two decades, I would repeat this strategy over and over again. In fact, there was not a moment in my life when I didn’t have something to worry about.
My decision to start worrying had been quick and easy, with far reaching implications. And since it had been within my power to choose to start worrying, it was also within my power to choose to stop. Indeed, the choice to stop was just as simple, with equally far reaching implications. But in order to make that choice, I had to recognise what I was doing, and consciously want to change.
Self fulfilling prophecies
Something else I learned from Sue’s book was to look out for self fulfilling prophecies. We should always focus on what we want, because when we focus on what we don’t want, we have an uncanny way of making it happen.
I realised that my cancer was an example of just that. I’d spent the first 37 years of my life perpetually worrying that something very serious was about to go wrong. And whenever one problem was resolved, I’d almost immediately find a new problem to start worrying about.
As a result, I lived my life in an almost perpetual state of stress, and this stress was beginning to take its toll. I got shingles, which was unusual for someone my age. The doctors told me my stress levels had depleted my immune system and I had to take things easier. But this just stressed me out even more.
Ironically, it seems that my anxiety that something was about to go wrong may very well be the cause of what finally did go wrong. I worried so much about getting ill, that the stress depleted my immune to the point where the cancer progressed to stage two.
The tumor and the rental car
One event in my life, more perfectly than any other, illustrates the futility of worrying. The night before I was due to go on holiday for a week traveling around northern Italy with a friend, I found a very large lump in my groin. I’d never felt anything like it before, and as I inevitably did back then, I worried about it. The next morning, before setting off for Italy, I made a quick visit to a walk in health clinic, hoping for some reassurance that it wasn’t anything to worry about. The doctor duly obliged, telling me that it was probably just a lymph node draining an infection.
So I went on my holiday. Within an hour of collecting my hire car, I’d managed to put a dent in it. I proceeded to spend the entire holiday worrying about how much the car rental company would charge me for the damage.
As it turns out, the dent was so small, the rental company didn’t make a charge. But the lump in my groin turned out to be a very serious tumor.
The irony was perfect. I’d spoilt my entire holiday worrying about a problem that didn’t even exist, when a far more serious problem was looming, that I was blissfully unaware of.
Worrying sometimes gives us the illusion of control, allowing us to imagine that we have complete control over what will happen to us. Somehow, worrying feels like a constructive thing to do. If we worry about something enough, then maybe it won’t happen.
But this is just an illusion.
My trip to Italy made me realise that I didn’t even know what I should be worrying about. Not only did I not have control, but I was actually blind to the future. I’d been worrying about something as trivial as an imperceptible dent on a car, when, at that very moment, there were tumors growing inside me, that came very close to killing me.
With this in mind, I began to realise that there was not point to worrying at all. But how was I going to stop?
In which I freak out my friends with a deathbed conversion
My friends were freaking out. We had gone to the bookshop together, and somehow I’d given them the slip. But that wasn’t what was freaking them out. They were struggling to comprehend where they had found me. I was standing in the deeply unfashionable Mind, Body & Spirit section, right at the back of the top floor, surrounded by hippy “earth-mother” types.
These days, it’s not so unusual to find me in that section of the bookshop, but back then it was unheard of. None of my group of friends read that sort of thing. And I’m afraid we all had a rather close-minded attitude towards what we regarded as, at best self-help psychobabble, and at worst, cultish indoctrination.
One of my friends later confided to me that seeing me in the Mind, Body & Spirit section was the first time that he realized that my illness must be serious. It seemed almost to him like a death bed conversion.
So what had draw me out of my normal haunt round the non-fiction and business sections? Had I finally seen the light and embraced Gaia into my life?
The truth is that I hadn’t intended to end up in Mind, Body & Spirit, but the search for a particular book I was looking for just led me there. Ever since I’d received my cancer diagnosis, my mind had started wandering over a movie trailer I’d seen a couple of years earlier. It clearly hadn’t persuaded me to see the movie at the time, and yet now images from the trailer kept vividly returning to my mind.
The movie, called Peaceful Warrior was about a gymnast who had a motorcycle accident that shattered his legs. He was told by his doctors that he may never walk again. His entire life had been focussed on qualifying for the US Olympic gymnastics team, and all his punishing effort towards achieving that goal now seemed wasted. The injured gymnast meets a mysterious old man who then teaches him a new way of being that somehow saves his life. Not his physical life - since that was not threatened - but his spiritual life. In one metaphorical scene in the trailer, the old man is shown sweeping up the pieces of the gymnast’s shattered body.
I used to find it very difficult to admit that I needed help. When my doctors had offered me counseling, I’d brushed it off, saying that I was fine. But I wasn’t fine. I was broken, like the gymnast in the movie trailer, and somehow my unconscious mind had been able to acknowledge this fact long before I had consciously come to terms with it. And it had drawn me to the Mind, Body & Spirit section of the bookshop. I was looking for help from the old man in the movie.
The warm rays of insight
Several days later, I was lying by window on a hospital gurney, with the sun shining down on me, feeling warm, relaxed and optimistic for the first time in years. I was engrossed in the book I was reading, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman - the book of the film, Peaceful Warrior.
The subtitle of the book rather immodestly claims to be “a book that changes lives,” and I’m happy to report that in my case at least, this proved to be true. In this book, Dan explains that the greatest battles that we face are within - hence the term “Peaceful Warrior”. I’d spent a lot of my life battling what I perceived were external threats. Like trying not to get sick, trying not to lose clients, trying not to lose money, trying not to offend people or trying not to get ripped off. The idea that the greatest battles I faced were within myself was entirely new to me. And while at first I resisted the idea, somewhere inside me I knew instinctively that this was true.
I had been sabotaging myself with fear, anxieties and self doubt. I’d been making decisions in my life like an inexperienced and nervous driver behind the wheel, careering off course by over-reacting and overcompensating to every twist and turn in the road of life. As a result, I’d had more than my fair share of bumps along the way. Peaceful Warrior helped to raise my awareness to this fact, and as a consequence, it gave me choices that I’d never previously had.
I could choose to be brave. I could choose to fight my internal battles. It wasn’t my job to fight cancer - that was a battle that only my doctors could win for me. My battle was within. I needed to take control of my mind.
I was smiling when the nurse arrived with my injection. I was about to have a PET scan, which would accurately determine where cancer cells were active within my body. To do this, I was going to be injected with a radioactive glucose solution. As it turns out, the injection was so radioactive that the nurse turned up with a lead apron and a gigantic crucible to hold the tiny injection in, so that it didn’t come close to his hands as he carried it to me. This toxic stuff was about to be injected directly into my veins, and I was smiling.
Because for the first time in a long time, I had a plan. I was going to confront my internal battles head on. I was going to fight the fight inside my head and I was going to win. I was going to start thinking about my own thinking. If it was the last thing I did, I was going to take control of and responsibility for my own choices in life.
Breaking the “bad mail” loop
In the months prior to my diagnosis, I’d had various minor misfortunes. I’d got involved in a dispute over a car insurance claim, and the freeholder of the building I lived in was in dispute with the leaseholders. As a result, I’d had a few unwelcome letters in the mail.
I became quite preoccupied by the anxiety of receiving what I called “bad mail”. I got so skilled at worrying about bad mail that I’d devised a routine for doing it. Each morning when I woke up, I’d wonder what bad mail would arrive that day. It would be on my mind at work, and my anxiety would increase on the way home, because I always checked the mail when I got home. By the time I was actually checking the mail, my heart would pound in my chest. And any news that arrived in the mail would go around in my head all evening, as I rehearsed in my mind how I would respond the following day.
My cancer diagnosis shed a new light on this little psychosis of mine. I began to see how absurd I was being, and how I was getting these issues entirely out of proportion.
“It’s not cancer”
“It’s not cancer” quite quickly became a useful refrain, as I began to measure all my problems by this new yardstick, I found that I didn’t really have any significant problems apart from the cancer.
But there was still the issue of the bad mail to solve. Even though I had come to realise that that it was nonsense, and that it had to stop, I’d got so good at doing it, and it had become such an established routine, that it had become almost involuntary.
The solution that I ultimately arrived at worked perfectly, but not for the reasons that I originally anticipated. I forced myself to leave the mail overnight, checking it in the morning on my way to work, rather than in the evening when I got back from work. I thought that this would make me worry less, because if there was any mail that I need to respond to, I could do so immediately by phone that morning, rather than worry myself to sleep about it in the evening.
The reason it actually worked, turned out to be quite different. Each evening I felt a strong compulsion to check the mail, but filled with resolve to beat the cancer, I resisted this compulsion. After two weeks, the post didn’t seem like a big deal any more. By forcing myself to leave the mail unopened overnight, I’d been sending myself a powerful signal that I was in control of the situation. That the post couldn’t be important because I wasn’t checking it. It could wait. I even stopped checking mail at weekends - leaving two days of mail to wait until I was ready to read it. And it was fine.
After a few weeks, I’d broken the worry routine altogether, and was no longer preoccupied with bad mail. If only I’d addressed my worrying earlier, then maybe I’d never have contracted a stage-two lymphoma. Now that my worrying was addressed, I needed to focus on my treatment. But would getting well prove to be as easy as addressing my worries?
“You can choose to be a victim, or you can choose anything else you’d like to be.”
There is a special word for ex-cancer-patients. They are called “survivors”. It’s actually quite an immodest term, implying some kind of heroic struggle against the odds. But it is also very empowering. Rather than being a “cancer victim” who “battles against a disease” it gives us an inspiring identity to live up to.
I’ve learned a lot about the importance of identity as a result of my cancer experience. Before all this began, I certainly wouldn’t have thought of myself as a survivor. I thought I was weak. And by weak, I mean that I thought I was both physically weak and a coward.
They say that denial is one of the stages you go through after diagnosis. Like the five stages of grief. I couldn’t quite believe it was happening to me. But it was more than that. It was a question of identity. I remember feeling that “this is not who I am”. Cancer patients are brave, and stoic and inspiring and strong. That is not me. I am not any of those things.
I’m a coward. A moaner. I have no tolerance for pain. I’m even scared of needles. I’m weak, both mentally and physically. That’s honestly how I thought about myself. But I also had two other qualities, at the bottom of my psychic barrel, which would prove to be invaluable and transformative.
Stubborn and vain.
I was stubborn and vain.
My stubbornness meant that even though I didn’t think I had the resources to beat the disease, I refused to give up without a fight. And the vanity? Well as soon as you tell people you’ve got cancer, they start telling you how brave you are, (how little they knew). But the vain side of me rather liked this new identity, and came to prefer how people saw me, to how I saw myself. This gave me not only a desire for change, but a map of how to change. I wanted to become the person that people already thought that I was.
I wanted to be brave and stoic and inspiring and strong. I wanted to be a survivor.
My fear of needles vanished with the repeated poking and prodding of chemotherapy. And with each procedure - bone marrow tests, biopsies or whatever - I’d limp back to work as quickly as I could. People told me how strong I was. And it made me feel strong.
“As an athlete, physical challenges are something that I’m good at.”
Lance Armstrong has an amazing talent for framing situations in empowering ways. He describes chemo as a physical challenge, and explains that, when he was told about his grueling treatment plan, he felt confident because it was essentially a physical challenge, and as an athlete, physical challenges are something that he is very good at.
It’s easy to think of chemo as being something disempowering, debilitating and overwhelming. But by reframing the situation, Lance Armstrong turns it into something empowering and challenging, like the Tour de France. Not something for weak, sick people, but something for world class athletes, like himself.
How we think about something like chemotherapy has a huge impact upon how we experience it. And how we think about ourselves - our identity - can limit us, or empower us to find the resources that we need.
I didn’t (yet) think of myself as an athlete, but I was starting to think of myself as someone who was brave and strong. Someone who would keep smiling when things got tough.
“You must be going out of your mind with worry”
Because my cancer was very rare, the diagnosis stage took a long time. From my first biopsy, I had to wait months for the histologists to arrive at a verdict. My cells were bounced around from one lab to another, as they marveled at the rarity of my condition, like stamp collectors. My consultant had already told me that I’d need chemo and radiotherapy, but he couldn’t confirm precisely what my treatment would be until the histologists had completed their deliberations.
Each week, I’d call my nurse at the hospital to ask if there was any news. My nurse was incredibly supportive, and I could tell she really felt bad for me. On one phone call, she said “I’m so sorry. You must be going out of your mind with worry.”
Fortunately, just that week, I’d been reading the chapter in Sue’s book about hypnosis, and so I spotted the embedded command in my nurse’s words. In a well meaning attempt to demonstrate that she empathised with my situation, she was mind reading, speculating that I must be worried. But what she was actually saying was an instruction. She was literally telling me that I must go out of my mind with worry. And as I’ve already explained, worrying was something that I was very good at. It was like giving a glass of vodka to an alcoholic - there was every reason to suspect that my unconscious mind would obey her unintentional command.
So I tried intercepting it instead. I told her that no, I was quite relaxed about it. I found it reassuring that the histologists were taking so much care over my case, and I even joked that I was flattered by all the attention.
I felt my entire body relax as I said this. The humor had somehow dispelled the moment, and I think it helped my unconscious mind let go of the embedded command as well.
“Take it one day at a time”
When you have a chronic illness, a lot of people tell you to “take it one day at a time.” I prefer to think of it as living in the present.
For the first few weeks, I was still waiting and hoping for the doctors to concede that there was some kind of mistake. That everything could go back to normal. But equally, a part of me knew that things could never go back to normal, and I didn’t want them to.
My past felt meaningless and hollow. My future frightened me. And so, for the first time in my life, I started to dwell in the present.
But existing in the present needn’t be because of fear of the past and future. In The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman puts it like this:
“You don’t have more than a few years left. No one does. So be happy now, without reason, or you never will be at all.”
I was halfway there. I was finally focused on “now”. But it would take me some more time to discover unreasonable happiness.
Enjoying the night before my surgery - compartments and boxes
Worry is the act of going over something again and again in your mind. Trying to reassure yourself by asking the rhetorical question “what’s the worst that can happen?” only to terrify yourself with various chilling but extremely unlikely scenarios.
Worry is the act of subjecting your body to the harmful and debilitating long term effects of stress, as your hyperactive brain instructs your adrenal glands to spew excessively high levels of the stress hormone cortisol into your bloodstream.
Worry is the act of surrendering your attention from the present to dwell instead on your regrets about the past and your anxieties about the future, despite the fact that this is entirely futile, and the only place where you can affect any kind of change is in the present.
Been there, done that, never going back there.
I remember the night before my surgery, I had a very pleasant evening with my partner. We watched a movie together. It was good, and I gave it my full attention. On a couple of occasions, I allowed myself to reflect upon the fact that I’d be out cold under a general anesthetic on the operating table the following morning, but then I let the thought go and returned to what I was doing.
This behavior might not seem so strange. After all, what’s the point on dwelling on something like surgery: it may not be so bad, but it’s hardly something to look forward to. But for me, this behavior was nothing short of revolutionary. Only a few months prior to this, I’d kept myself up all night with anxiety that the doctor might want to give me a blood test the following morning. It had been going around and around in my head, possible scenarios where the doctor would or would not want to subject me to a needle, and how painful that needle might prove to be.
The night before my surgery was not the only occasion on which I experienced this calm before the storm. I’d felt similarly relaxed on the night before my first chemotherapy treatment. And throughout the months of my treatment, whatever was going on with my health, I found that when I was at work, I was able to focus on what I was doing without any distraction from worry.
Something had changed within me. A fundament shift. But what?
Five years later, I’m standing on a beach on Lanzarote, waiting to start my first ever surfing lesson. I feel relaxed, confident, intrigued and fully refreshed after a good night’s sleep. As a child, I had been terrified by the sea after being dragged with my family along on sailing trips in choppy waters. I had vowed never again to go near the sea, and up until today, I had been true to my word.
The truth is that returning to the sea was a frightening prospect for me. The very fact that it was an intimidating prospect is what made it so intriguing. My cancer experiences had given me a new appetite to take on my fears, and a confidence that I could beat them. But this still didn’t make them any less scary. So how was I able to get such a good sleep the night before my first surfing lesson?
For the same reason that I was able to enjoy the movie before my surgery, and to focus on my work during my treatment. I had found a way to channel my attention onto the present. And the way I describe this technique is “compartmentalization”.
Worry is one of the main culprits from drawing out attention out of the present. One moment we may be focusing on the here and now, and the next moment, we glaze over and go inside ourselves, as if we’re working away on some unsolvable internal problem. And while we’re there, whatever it was that we were doing is left to our autopilot. Fortunately, we rarely, if ever, see ourselves in this state, but it can be both sobering and disturbing to observe it in others. You may see their eyes scanning rapidly from left to right, as if they’re reading an invisible page of text. Their lips open and close as if they’re whispering, but no sound comes out - or even more disconcertingly, sometimes there’s some kind of incomprehensible muttering. Like someone talking in a foreign language to themselves, that only they understand.
You may think you’ve never looked this crazy, but if you’ve ever been preoccupied by worries, there’s a fair chance you resembled this description. So worrying doesn’t look cool, but that’s the least of our problems. The real question is, when we’re worrying about the future, who is left to look after the present? Do we really want to put our lives in the hands of someone in this state?
Before cancer, I was becoming increasingly aware that I had a problem with my worrying, and I needed to do something about it, but I had no idea how to change. As I’ve said, the cancer helped me to realize the futility of worrying because I could see no path to reassurance. The “what’s the worst that could happen” game was not remotely reassuring. When you’re contemplating cancer surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, your doctors will be very clear about what the worst possible outcomes are, and they are very far from reassuring. In fact, they’ll make you sign waiver forms to accept that they very worst may well happen, and that you will not hold them liable for the consequences.
With the stakes this high, worrying became a nuclear option - a truly terrifying and all consuming activity if you allowed yourself to succumb to it. Rather than considering “what’s the worst that can happen” you’re better off putting it out of your mind altogether. But how? The trouble is, of course, the more you try not to think about something, the more you find yourself thinking about it. Try not thinking about elephants right now. Hard isn’t it. You weren’t even thinking about elephants before, but now that I’ve mentioned them, you can’t help but think about elephants, even though I told you not to.
The solution I found to this problem was to start packing away these different aspects of my life into separate compartments. The way it worked was that only one compartment could be open at a time. The others were still there and I fully recognized their gravity. But when there was nothing I could do about them, then I recognized this fact too, and I acted accordingly, by storing them in their respective compartments, ready to open up and deal with at the appropriate time.
As I was packing away these things for later, I would say to myself, “there’s nothing more I can do about this now.” When the time came to deal with whatever was in that compartment, I knew it would all still be there. So on the morning of my surgery, I was ready to discuss it with my surgeon, I was prepared with the questions I wanted to ask, and I was even able to share a joke with one of the medical interns who wanted to photograph my cancer scars.
But the night before, that compartment was closed. Out of sight, out of mind. I was in a different compartment. I was focused on spending time with my partner, and enjoying a movie together. And that’s exactly what we did.
I continue to benefit from using this technique now, several years after getting the all clear. And it has enabled me to do things that would previously have seemed impossible to me, like going surfing. On the morning of my first day of surf school, it was only as I was pulling on my wetsuit that the compartment opened in my mind and I contemplated what I was about to do. It made me laugh as I thought “what have a gotten myself into now,” and the great thing was, there simply wasn’t any time to worry about it - I literally just had to throw myself into the waves and see what happened.
With practice, I have found this technique becomes second nature - so much so that I no longer need to consciously think about the metaphor of compartments and boxes any more. I simply need to act as if there are compartments and boxes that can only be opened one at a time. The key is to genuinely believe that this is the case.
The curse of the red shoes
Doctors talk about chemotherapy as a “regime”, because it usually comprises many different drugs. Not just the chemo itself, but also drugs like steroids to help your body break down the dead tumor tissue, and antiemetics to help you cope with the nausea that chemo can sometimes cause. So each week, when I went to the hospital for my chemo, they would give me a “goodie bag” to take home, filled with a cocktail of different tablets to take at various intervals. As it later turned out, I was seriously allergic to one of the drugs in that bag.
With so many different drugs coursing around your body, if you experience an allergic reaction, it can take a bit of detective work on the part of your doctors to work out which one is to blame.
The symptoms were like nothing I had ever experienced before. It started with this strange feeling of restlessness. I would wake up in the night and sit up bolt upright. During the day, I would be incapable of sitting still to read a magazine or watch TV. I just couldn’t rest. I couldn’t sleep, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of unease.
It was like Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale about the girl who put on magical red shoes that forced her to dance perpetually without resting. Eventually she was forced to amputate her own feet in order to be free from the shoes.
At first, the doctors thought it was simply that I was struggling to cope with the side effects of the chemo. This was a terrifying prospect. If being on chemo was going to be like this, how was I going to survive several months of it? I was more frightened that I had ever been in my life before, and things were about to get much worse.
A test of mind and body
Before my diagnosis, one of my greatest phobias was a fear of injections and blood tests. Of course, by the time I’d completed my chemo, I’d got over this, but when I started, my fear of needles was still very real.
One of the many tests that chemo patients are subjected to is a kidney function test. A substance is injected into the blood stream, and then blood tests are taken every two hours to see how rapidly your kidneys gets rid of it. If it stays in your bloodstream for longer than average, your chemo dosage may need to be reduced.
I was already suffering from the mind-altering effects of my allergic reaction to one of my drugs. Now, I had to return to the hospital every two hours to face my fear of needles over and over again. It was like a cruel kind of torture, and one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done. I still don’t quite know how I managed to complete the test, but I remember thinking at the time - I have no choice, it’s this or death.
And things were about to get darker still, before I finally reached the dawn.
The psychic oil slick
Every experience I had during the time that I was suffering from the allergic reaction became tainted. Like a psychic oil slick that engulfed everything I encountered. If I hear a piece of music today that I listened to then, I start to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s an immediate and powerful reaction.
At the time, as I was trying to take my mind off that terrible feeling of chemical-induced restlessness, I watched some of my favourite old movies and TV shows. These were all ruined for me. Even today, I can’t enjoy watching them. They have become so powerfully anchored in my mind with that experience. I imagine, with some work, I could desensitise them, and break the anchors, but experiencing the feelings and sensations that they trigger simply don’t seem worth it.
I call these anchors “the taint”. I can be going about my business as normal, when I encounter one of these TV shows or pieces of music and it stops me in my tracks, and I’m back there - restless, agitated and terrified. I’ve stumbled across the taint.
Finding the answer by losing control
The rashes on my back, that the chemo was supposed to be making better, were starting to get worse. Much worse. They were turning bright red, puffy and hot to the touch. When I showed them to the doctors, they immediately admitted me into the hospital for a course of intravenous antibiotics. For most infections, antibiotics are administered aurally, as tablets. But with the kind of severe infections that are possible when your immune system is compromised by chemo, higher doses of antibiotics are required, and these have to be administered intravenously - through a needle or “cannula” directly into your bloodstream.
The trouble with high dose antibiotics is that they kill the good bacteria in your stomach, which can induce nausea and vomiting. To counteract this, the doctors gave me a higher dose of metoclopramide, the antiemetic drug I’d been taking to counteract my nausea. Unfortunately, it turned out that this was the drug that I’d been having the allergic reaction to at low doses. My symptoms on low doses had been bad enough. On a high dose, they were nothing short of spectacular.
My entire body began to convulse uncontrollably. I was terrified. I watched as the nurse tried to help by administering more metoclopramide through my cannula. At this stage, I was beginning to intuitively sense that the metoclopramide was the problem, but I was powerless to stop it. In fact, I was powerless to do anything. I felt tears start streaming down my face and I realized in terror that I’d finally relinquished every last illusion of control over my life. And I could no longer see a way forwards. I remember thinking, “this is it”.
Fortunately, one of the doctors recognised my condition as an acute distonic reaction, metoclopramide was identified as the cause and eventually, my symptoms subsided. Ironically, the drug that was supposed to be making me feel better was in fact making me feel much worse.
Over the weeks that followed, things started getting easier for me. In fact, since that moment when I was lying on the hospital bed, my skin covered in infected cancer lesions, my limbs convulsing while the nurses pumped poison into my veins, things have always been easier for me. Because it was in that moment that I finally learned to let go. I finally came to accept that I was not in control, that I never had been and that I never would be.
Things happen. Sometimes terrifying things. Sometimes wonderful things. There’s only an extent to which we can influence and we can never control. And as I let go of the illusion of control, I let something else go as well. Entitlement. I now believe that the idea we’re entitled to things is one of the greatest causes of sickness in the western world. Lying in that hospital bed, I realized that I wasn’t entitled to be well. I wasn’t entitled to decide what was put into my own veins, and that I wasn’t even entitled to life.
When that brilliant doctor correctly diagnosed an acute distonic reaction and made it stop... made all the symptoms of the allergic reaction stop... I had never been more grateful in my life. Gratitude is what you’re left with once you’ve let go of entitlement.
And I’ve been grateful ever since.
An interesting specimen
As the rashes all over my body became worse, they started to join up, and I was beginning to look like the Singing Detective. My appearance at this point was so remarkable that my doctors wanted to take photographs of it for their records, so they sent an orderly to take me in a wheelchair from the ward I was in to the medical photography department.
I didn’t need a wheelchair since my legs were working perfectly well, but the orderly insisted, saying it was procedure. He was very friendly and chatty as he wheeled me down corridors and up elevators from one end of the hospital to the other. He spent some time moaning about the patients who were always moaning, and then told me that the patients who were really sick were always the nicest to him. He said that I was a nice guy. It struck me that this was not a particularly reassuring indication of his perception of my health.
The orderly’s kind but disturbing words were still on my mind as I stripped down to my underpants and stood with my arms raised outwards as the bright photographic lights shone down on my disfigured skin. I felt terrible. Not sick, but more humiliated and pathetic. I was reduced to a medical curiosity - like the elephant man. Looking back, I realize this seems a little over dramatic, but it’s how I felt at the time.
I never saw the photos. It’s strange to imagine they’re now being studied by medical students somewhere. I’d never felt proud of my body, but equally, I had never felt dissatisfied with it either. But at that moment, as I stood there, with my gut hanging out, and my skin oozing with red-raw lesions, I felt ashamed. I wanted a better body.
The comfort of strangers
Every week, chemotherapy patients from the lymphoma clinic at the Royal Marsden Hospital meet at the Medical Day Unit to receive their medicine. Most cytotoxic chemotherapy is made from platinum. A beautiful metal when worn outside the body, but deadly when inside it. It kills cells. The trick is to take just the right amount of it to kill all the cancer cells before it kills you.
The stuff is so dangerous that it has to be pumped into your veins very slowly, to ensure that it circulates evenly around your entire system. That means sitting still for hours, hooked up to a pump that infuses the chemo into your veins.
So, each week, we’d sit together in a big room, waiting for the chemo to take effect, at which point we’d start to feel sick. I got talking to a few fellow patients, but mostly we all just sat in silence, reading books, or staring into space.
But despite our lack of words, there was something very special and moving about the Medical Day Unit. I think we were somehow all taking emotional strength from each other. There was a extraordinary kind of fellowship and camaraderie between us that I’ve never experienced before. And when a fellow patient completed his or her treatment, we all felt a shared elation for them. Something truly selfless, borne out of adversity.
I’d never felt connected with people in this way before, and it’s something I’ve kept with me since. I’m always looking for these unexpected, unspoken connections now.
Paying attention to tears
While I was on chemotherapy, there was one topic of conversation that would always make me cry. My job. I didn’t understand this at the time. The tears seemed to come from nowhere, when I least expected it. But over time, I started to recognize the pattern. Whenever I talked about my job, I started to well up. And I didn’t know why. Was my unconscious mind trying to tell me something?
The doctors had told me to take at least three months off work. They warned that the chemo would be very tiring, and that most people struggled to maintain a full time job. I egotistically thought to myself “I’m not most people,” and I resolved to carry on working regardless. In fact, I didn’t see that I had much option. I was self-employed, running a small business. I was not sure that it could carry on without me, and I felt I would be letting a lot of people down if I stopped working.
But once I had started the treatment, I began to see what the doctors had meant. I was struggling under the pressure, and I was increasingly relying on my colleagues’ support and my clients’ understanding. I had taken too much on and I was failing. I could no longer support myself.
Looking back, I now realize that this is what was getting me so upset. From an early age, I’d learned to rely only on myself. I had been deeply mistrustful of other people and I had become fiercely independent as a consequence. This independence had served me reasonably well as a self-defense mechanism over the years, but it was woefully inadequate in the circumstances I now found myself in.
No one survives cancer without the help of other people. It’s a team effort. There’s not just a patient. There’s doctors, nurses, family, friends and colleagues. They all play an important part. You have to learn to trust other people and put your life in their hands if you’re going to survive.
Good times on chemo
Life on chemo had its good days as well as the bad. There were days in each cycle where I felt quite well, and on many occasions, I remember having good times. On one occasion, I went with a friend to see a Zaha Hadid exhibition at the London Design Museum. The innovation and visual energy of Hadid’s work transported me from my day-to-day life, and instead I was absorbed in a world of flowing lines and fractured rectilinear forms.
Leaving the exhibition, I felt intellectually recharged. The visual richness of the gallery environment couldn’t have been in starker contrast from the bland sterile hospital environments I’d been spending so much time in lately. Then I sat with a friend by the River Thames and we ate muffins. I still remember that day fondly. Days like that shine out like jewels in my memory, maybe because they were so precious to me at the time.
It’s easy to focus on the bad days when you’re on chemo, but it’s more important to remember the good days. If anyone reading this is about to start chemotherapy, it’s especially important that they know they can have good days too.
Happiness is about more than pleasurable moments
Each month, when I had completed a cycle of chemotherapy, I would have a CT scan to measure the size of my tumors. After the first month, they had actually grown. The doctor told me that the treatment may not be working, that I might need to switch to tougher regime. The first month had been particularly tough, because of my allergic reaction. The idea that it had all been for nothing and that worse was yet to come was a crushing blow. I went home, by myself, sat down and wept.
I called my partner, who rushed home from work to comfort me.
Remembering that moment still makes me cry. This was an extremely important moment in my life, and as frightened as I was, my partner was there to share it with me. And that made me feel better. It also enriched our relationship, and made it even more meaningful to me.
As painful as that moment was, it was also very precious. I like to explain it like this. Life is not a bowl of cherries, where you seek out one sweet sensation after enough. It’s far more complex that that. Like a glass of fine whisky. It has its sweetness, but it has more difficult notes as well. With a glass if whisky, you don’t just enjoy the sweetness, you savor the whole thing for what it is.
Cancer has taught me that life can be a lot like that.
If we treat it like a bowl of cherries, attempting to hop from one pleasurable experience to another, we strip away all of the meaning.
I mentioned Dan Millman’s book, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. There are many great lessons in this book, but one of the most important, and I think the hardest to grasp is unreasonable happiness. That, no matter what the circumstances, we should be happy. This is how Dan puts it:
“Feelings change. Sometimes sorrow, sometimes joy. But beneath it all remember the innate perfection of your life unfolding. That’s the secret of unreasonable happiness.”
I struggled with this idea for a long time. How could my life be innately perfect when I had cancer? How could it be innately perfect when I felt sorrow? But in the midst of my treatment, these words started to make sense to me. Even as my mood changed; even as my optimism waxed and wained; even as the chemo drove me to a nadir.
As I had come to understand that life was a glass of whisky, not a bowl of cherries, I was learning to appreciate it. I was learning to take pleasure in the small things. I was learning to forgive myself when I was weak, and recognise my achievements when I was strong.
The small things in life, like time with friends and family, all suddenly took on a great deal more meaning for me. Rather than thinking “I have to do this” I was starting to think “I get to do this.”
There was an underlying happiness in my life. For the first time in my life.
Diet. Exercise. Rest.
Are you eating well? Are you sleeping well? Are you getting enough exercise? These are fundamental questions. Getting these three things right is essential to keeping well. And when you’re on chemotherapy, being well is not something that you can take for granted.
The kind of chemo I was on is particularly hard on your bone marrow, which manufactures blood cells. Each cycle, when I reached my nadir (my weakest point in the treatment), I’d become neutropenic, which means that I had little or no white blood cells. Or in other words, I had no immune system left.
When you’re neutropenic, you have to take your health seriously. And I did. And I have been ever since. Once you properly start looking after yourself, you never want to stop.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said he’d loved to go to the gym as often as I do, but because he was self employed, he just didn’t have the time. I told him about the triangle of wellness - diet, exercise and rest. I told him that, from painful personal experience, I knew that life is fragile, and we have to take our health seriously. And I told him that without his health, he didn’t have a business anyway. I said he should make time. And I meant it.
He just laughed and told me I was lovely.
I wished I knew how to properly share this lesson with him before it was too late for him, as it almost had been for me.
Running on empty and the need for inspiration
I have a vivid memory of one day, sitting in my car, by myself, in tears. I was half way through my third month of chemotherapy and no one was talking to me. My key-worker nurse, Lucy, had been off sick for several weeks, none of my doctors were available and I had an urgent question.
When I had started my treatment three months ago, I was told I needed three months of chemotherapy, followed radiotherapy. I has assumed I was coming to the end of my treatment, but when I checked in for my chemo that day, one of the administrators had given me appointment times for another two months of chemo. I didn’t understand why, and there were no doctors around to ask.
I phoned up my consultants office, and spoke to a nurse who wasn’t familiar with my case. She had a quick read of my file and said, in a matter-of-fact manner tone, that I was down for six months of chemo, not three. There was no explanation given. I managed to choke back my tears in the hospital, but when I got into my car to drive home, I broke down and cried.
They’d moved the goals on me with no explanation. They made decisions which had a massive impact upon my life behind closed doors, and then neglected to tell me about them, let alone tell me what motivated them.
It felt hopeless. And I really do mean hopeless. As I sat alone, weeping in my car, I simply had no positive energy left. I couldn’t see anything to look forward to. And all the efforts I’d been making to stay positive seemed like Pollyanna-isms. “They’re never going to let me off the chemo,” I thought. “They’ll keep me on it until it kills me.” That’s honestly what I thought.
Five years later, coming down from the high of completing my second London Marathon, a friend observed that it seemed to be really important to me to keep trying to be inspirational. He asked me why. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but as soon as I thought about it, the answer was obviously. I was transported back to that hopeless moment in the car. That was why it was important.
What I didn’t know back then was that the doctors had decided to extend my chemo because it was working. The tumors were shrinking to such an extent that they had decided I wouldn’t need radiotherapy after all. When things seemed at their most hopeless, my treatment was in fact coming to a successful conclusion. How could I have anticipated back then that a few months later I would be training for my first marathon?
That’s why it’s so important to be an inspiration to others. It’s not just vanity. It’s about hope. Providing hope to people who don’t have any. People who, right now are sitting in a car somewhere crying. Because they need to know that it can get better. It’s not just world-class athletes like Lance Armstrong who survive cancer and go on to live rewarding lives. It’s ordinary people like me as well.
I would encourage any cancer survivor to be as open, honest and visible about their experiences as possible. So that people crying in cars can know that there is hope. Because people need hope like cars need fuel. When the tank is empty, they can no longer operate. I believe that very few people are unfortunate enough to ever find themselves with an empty tank. It gets low sometimes, and our engines start sputtering. But to be all out of hope is truly terrifying.
Someone once told me that they really liked my story because I’m so ordinary. I’m not like a Lance Armstrong or a Steve Jobs. I’m just a regular guy. And that if I can be a survivor, then anyone can. I was so touched by this that it brought tears to my eyes. They had precisely understood the meaning of my story.
As I learned more about meditation and mindfulness, I came to understand the importance of not allowing my mind to draw my attention away from the present. Learning to let go of fears about what may happen in the future, or to predicate one’s future happiness on a particular outcome. But paradoxically, I found that this didn’t mean letting go of hope.
There was a song that kept coming into my mind while I was on chemo. The song has a serene and melancholy tone, with a particular lyric I remembered:
“September again. You come so quick... Like knocking so hard, and trying to get through to Bethlehem’s gates.”
In June, as I lay in a dimly lit room, fighting off nausea, with the sunshine blazing beyond my drawn curtains, I would imagine myself listening to that song in September, when the treatment was over. The idea of “Bethlehem’s gates” became associated with hope in my mind (even though I’m not religious). I would find myself singing that song over and over in my head.
When the treatment was over and my consultant told me that, to his great surprise, the scans were now clear, the first thing I did was go home, play Bethelem’s Gates and burst in to tears. It was September again, just like in the song and I realised that I was going to be alive for Christmas, and that was what the lyrics of the song meant.
My trip to Italy had taught me that I couldn’t predict the future, and so there was no point in worrying. The same is true of hope - to a point. There’s no point in hoping for a specific outcome, since we can’t know what is going to be best for us. How could I have known, for example, about all of the positives I would get from cancer. But there is an important difference between worry and hope. And it is this: worrying about an undefined negative outcome is destructive and empty; while remaining hopeful for an undefined positive outcome gives us the resources we need to carry on.
I’m still here! What now?
I hadn’t been expecting to survive. That is the startling truth that I was coming to terms with. For months, the news seemed to have got progressively worse. The cancer might be in my bone marrow. The regime isn’t tough enough. The tumors are still growing. We need to give it another month and then we’ll see... The doctors are trained not to give patients false hope, so whenever I asked them if this might be the last chemo cycle, they would say “we’ll see” with a pained smile on their face.
So when the PET scan revealed no trace of cancer activity in my body, “PET negative” as they call it, it was not only joyous news, but it was also a surprise.
I felt like I’d been following a map for the last few months, and now I was blundering forwards without one. What was I going to do now? Who was I? I knew that I’d grown and evolved and become a different person, but what did this mean?
It took a few weeks for the news to sink in. And I was back to square one - I knew nothing. But there was a difference now. I now knew that it was great to know nothing. To be open to new experience. I just had to wait and allow the answers to come to me.
And I didn’t have to wait long.
“Yes, but how do I know what I want to do?”
One way I like to sense-check what I am doing is this. I ask myself, if this was the last day of my life, is this something I’d want to be doing with it? If the answer is no, then I know I need to reappraise my priorities.
Talking to people about my experiences, a comment I often get is that I’m lucky, because I know what I want to do. I know I want to run, for example. They then say “but my problem is that I don’t know what I want.”
This is a problem that I understand very well, because I felt exactly the same way before my diagnosis. The answer for me was to learn to listen to my unconscious mind.
A few months after my treatment was over, I was starting to realise that things could return to normal. But because I’d been so unhappy before, the last thing I wanted was for things to return to normal. I needed a new direction. This left me in a state of ambivalence, that made me more receptive to new ideas than I had ever been before. This ambivalence is what enabled me to start listening to my unconscious mind.
It began with an image, that started coming into my head at quite random moments. The image was vivid and clear. I could see a man running through a city. He looked calm, relaxed, confident, strong and healthy. He somehow embodied all of the qualities that the cancer experiences had made me aspire to.
Oddly, over time I recognised the image as having come from a TV ad for Nike running shoes that I’d seen many years before. It hadn’t made much of an impression on me at the time, or so I had thought. But how fascinating that my unconscious mind had resourcefully stored it away, ready to make me revisit it at precisely the right moment.
I’m not a sporty person
Almost without thinking about it, I went out and bought a pair of Nike running shoes, and I’ve been running ever since. I’ve run about 10,000 kilometers in the past four years. I’ve raised a lot of money for Cancer Research UK. I joined my local running club. I’ve run races all around the country. I’ve completed the London Marathon twice and I’m training for my first New York Marathon this autumn.
Before cancer, I had never run anywhere in my life before. I didn’t do any exercise. I was overweight and unhealthy. Now I run 10km a day, and it’s always one of the most joyful parts of my day. I know that running is one of the things I would want to be doing on the last day of my life, so I never regret going for a run.
Of course, as much as I love running, I realise it may not be for everyone. We’re all different, and we all have different dreams and desires. But if you’re like I was, you may not have any idea about what those desires might be. All it took to work out what I wanted to do was to create some space to allow my unconscious mind give me the answer.
A habit transplant
Every night, when I get back from work, I go for a run. Even if I feel tired. Even if it’s pouring with rain. Even if the ground is covered with snow. Sometime, when the weather is particularly grizzly, I might think to myself “I don’t want to go running today”, as I’m pulling on my running shoes. But it doesn’t stop me. Nothing stops me. I never miss a run. This pattern of behaviour has become deeply entrenched for me.
Partly, this is because I know that, even at the end of the most rain-drenched run, I’ll feel better for having got out there by the time I get home. But there’s more to it than that. I’ve managed to substitute a bad habit for a good one. I had replaced my “Bad Mail” loop with a running habit.
Before cancer, on my way home I would be worrying about what I might find in the day’s mail. And in the evening I would be stressing over what I had found in the mail, or what bad news might be delivered on the following day. It all hinged upon me arriving home from work, which is when I would check my mail. This was the trigger that instigated the habit routine and perpetuated the state. As I’ve already explained, I had successfully disrupted this routine by switching to checking my mail in the mornings rather than the evenings. But with my new running routine, I was taking this further. The same trigger that had once instigated the worry routine was now triggering my running routine, with the same reliable consistency.
The reason that I pull on my running shoes every evening when I got home, regardless of the weather is simply because that’s what I do when I get home. That’s my routine. It’s not something I even need to think about. It just happens.
Underlying the “negative” behaviour of my bad mail worry routine was an untapped “positive” resource - the ability to maintain repetitive tasks consistently and reliably.
“I’ve been good, I deserve this.”
It’s common for patients on chemotherapy to lose weight. This is usually due to loss of appetite and vomiting, which can be side effects of the treatment. Ironically however, I had managed to gain weight during my treatment. This was probably due to my indulging in comfort food and “treats” to reward myself for “being good”.
My thinking at the time went something like this. “Poor me, having to go through all this nasty chemotherapy. I’ve been really good putting up with all this. I deserve a treat.” On my way back from the medical day unit each week, I’d buy myself a Magnum ice cream to “cheer myself up.” Whenever I bought myself a coffee at Starbucks, I’d always get a cake to go with it. And every evening, I’d stuff my face with half tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream while I sat watching TV.
And so, inevitably, my waistline increased. I’d never been particularly fit, but equally, I’d never been overweight before. But now, there was not escaping the fact that I was well and truly fat.
In the year after I completed my treatment, I lost 20kg. Of course, my new running habit played an important role in my weight loss, but changes in my diet were also important. Now that I was healthy again, I wanted to stay that way, and an important part of staying healthy is to eat a healthy diet.
At the heart of my unhealthy relationship with ice cream, cakes and chocolate was these concepts of “treat,” “reward,” and “being good”. In order to make a permanent switch to a healthy, balanced way of eating, I knew I had to reframe my relationship with food.
The first thing I chose to let go of was the idea of “being good”. This concept implies and invisible parent figure who judges whether you are good or bad. It externaises the responsibility for judging our choices to this invisible overseer. Surely, it’s not about being good or bad, it’s about choosing for ourselves what we want to eat by considering both the short and long term consequences of our choices. The second problem with the idea of “being good” is that it is zero-sum. We negate the good eating behaviour by then indulging in “bad” eating. Instead, I decided to work out what amounts of different food types I would choose to eat, considering what I enjoyed eating, and what the healthy impact was.
The next concept I decided to get rid of was “treats”. A treat is effectively a behaviour where we choose to subject our bodies to something unhealthy as a reward for having done something healthy. Not only does this concept suffer from the same zero-sum problem “being good,” but it also implies that eating healthy food is not a treat. Effectively, it divides our eating behaviour into healthy punishment eating and unhealthy reward eating. Surely eating healthily should be its own reward.
Today, I still eat chocolate, cakes and ice cream from time to time, although far less than I ever used to. But I never refer to them as treats, and I certainly never think of them as rewards for being good. They’re simply fun things I occasionally choose to eat as part of a healthy balanced diet.
I know now that the ultimately luxury is being well, and the only “treat” worth having is a healthy relationship with food. Treats play no part in that, and I believe its a word that we could all benefit from not using.
Forget the eraser
The experience of cancer has changed me so much, that it sometimes feels like I’m a different person today than the one who walked into the doctor’s surgery in 2007. But of course, I know that’s not the case.
I sometimes meet people who are half my age, and already seem to be way ahead of me in their personal development. While I marvel at their emotional intelligence, I don’t regret being a slow learner. Every event in my past led to me becoming the person I am today, and I’m happy with who I am.
As a teenager, I didn’t study a “proper” degree. I went to art college instead. Whatever subject you choose to study, a good art college will make you learn to draw first. It’s an essential skill for any artist, regardless of discipline, because it teaches you observation and honesty.
One of the first things a good art teacher will tell you to do is to discard your eraser. Artists never user them. This is not because they don’t make mistakes, although they rarely do. It is because drawing is a process of mark making, and using an eraser negates this process. If you make a bad mark, move on and make a better one. A skilled artist will make bold marks with confidence, allowing the motion to flow from their upper arm. Each mark tells a unique part of the drawing process, as the artist finds her way towards describing her subject.
Tattoo artists are the boldest of all. Not only do they not use an eraser, but their marks are indelible. Impossible to erase. Before cancer, I didn’t understand why anyone would want a tattoo. Why would someone voluntarily make a decision that is irrevocable. But I now realise that I was looking at it the wrong way. Life is like drawing. All of the decisions that we make are irrevocable. We have to make them boldly and with confidence.
Keeping things in balance
Some people believe that we have five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. In fact, the idea of five senses was conceived by Aristotle, and it is arguably a couple of thousand years out of date. Modern neurologists will tell you that there are more than five sense. One that Aristotle missed, the sense of balance, is so fundamental to how we operate that we hardly notice it’s there.
Until it stops working.
Our sense of balance is derived primarily from a part of the inner ear call the vestibular system. I had been having some trouble with my hearing for several years before my diagnosis. Because of this, my doctors decided not to give me the standard chemotherapy treatment for my condition (Cisplatin) but to try a newer drug instead called Carboplatin, which was supposed to be less damaging to ears. While less toxic to the ears, Carboplatin can still take its toll - particularly if your hearing is already impaired, as mine was.
By the time I had finished my chemotherapy, my hearing had become a lot worse, so I needed to rely on hearing aids to get by. But something else had happened. The first clues started while I was still on chemo. I was vomiting a lot, which isn’t unusual for chemo patients perhaps, but my nausea was getting consistently worse, and didn’t seem to be affected by the stages in the chemo cycle. When I finished the chemo, the nausea and vomiting continued. My doctors could not explain this: when you come off chemo, the side effects should pass quite quickly. I got the distinct sense that they thought my condition was psychosomatic, or in other words, it was my problem, not theirs.
My experience with chemo had got me used to feeling constantly nauseous, so I had already learned to live with this. But the problems didn’t stop there. They were about to become a great deal worse. The bottom was about to fall out of my world.
Something was going wrong with my vestibular system, causing it to send faulty signals to my brain. These signals was making me feel nauseous, as if I was being perpetually thrown around on a roller coaster. And then, every so often, the problem would suddenly get worse, and I would experience a vertigo attack, which would make me collapse to the ground, whether I was walking along the street, or seated at my desk.
One attack was so severe that it felt as if I was falling from the top of a skyscraper. With my world spinning around my head, incapable of standing, speaking, reading or regular breathing, I was more terrified than I ever had been before. I began hyperventilating so quickly that my hands became numb and started trembling. I honestly believed that I was about to die. I remember thinking “this is it”. I phoned for an ambulance.
There are moments in our lives that are so intense that they are forever burned into our minds. Psychologists call them “flashbulb” memories. That moment, where I thought “this is it” was a flashbulb moment for me. These are memories that our unconscious mind has picked out and marked with a great big indelible highlighter pen. They are imbued with meaning, and its the job of our conscious minds to explore what that meaning is. To learn what our unconscious mind is trying to tell us.
While some of our memories are vague, with details missing: perhaps we’re not quite sure when they happened, or maybe they’re an amalgam of several different similar events, flashbulb memories have a completeness to them. They are moments in our biographies that seem lit up by spotlights, with all the details appearing in sharp relief. And they are sticky. As we track back through our past, we’re drawn to them.
And so it was for me with this memory. I kept returning to it in quiet moments, like a fly alighting on a lightbulb. What was it about this particular experience that set it apart?
I’m not sure what it is about that moment that keeps draws me back to it. Perhaps it’s because when I thought “this is it”, it wasn’t. I survived.
The map is not the territory - so stop looking at the map
The next few months were punctuated with regular debilitating vertigo attacks. I had to stop driving. I struggled with client meetings and presentations, often finding that the room would start spinning moments after I stood up to deliver an important presentation to a roomful of senior executives.
I had assumed that when I finished the chemotherapy, work would become easier, since I would no longer be interrupted by fatigue, nausea and constant hospital visits. In fact, the frequent vertigo attacks were making it harder than ever to do my job. It was difficult to plan my day and commit to meetings when I didn’t know what state I would be in from one moment to the next. And the symptoms persisted for months after I’d finished chemotherapy, with no sign of abatement.
Even walking down my street was a journey into the unknown, since a surprise attack could come from nowhere, flip my world upside down, and I’d find myself lying bruised on the pavement.
So much of my learning over the past few months had focussed on what was going on inside my head. But now, it was my head itself that was going wrong. My neurons were tricking me - giving me the illusion of spinning or falling. I realized that I had to find a different approach to survive with this condition.
I needed to get out of my head.
There’s a mental shortcut that we sometimes make, where we think of ourselves as if we are our experiences. For example, in English, the phrase “I am walking” means that walking is what I am doing, but grammatically speaking, it could also mean that walking is what I am. In other words, I am the act of walking. I don’t think this is an accident. I think we tend to construct our identity around our experience, and we receive our experience via our senses. So when our senses become unreliable, due to a disease like vertigo, this can quickly have an impact on our identity - our sense of self.
It goes without saying that most of us spend most of our time looking out of our eyes. As a consequence, what we see tends to be from the unique perspective of the location of our eyeballs - they are, after all little more than fancy biological cameras. It is not as simple as that, however. The information that we receive from our eyeballs has to be interpreted by our brains, where it is synthesized with our knowledge and other senses in order to construct a conscious awareness of where we are and what we’re doing.
During a vertigo attack, the information from my sense of balance was going wrong, and the faulty signals it was feeding into my brain were corrupting my visual interpretation of the information from my eyeballs. The result was an illusion of spinning or falling rapidly.
And the more I focussed on my vision, the worse it became. So I tried a new approach. I chose to switch my perspective. My knowledge of what was going wrong enabled my to disregard the illusion, and instead construct an image of myself seen from above - like a character in a computer game. I learned to adopt a 3rd person perceptual position whenever I experienced an attack. I was able to see myself and my environment in perfect stillness, with no spinning or falling. And this reminded and reassured me that what was going on in my head - the illusion - was in fact not reality. The word was not spinning, and my conscious was capable of discerning that fact and disregarding the illusion.
There are, of course, limits to using perceptual positions in this way. For example, during an attack, I was not able to read, and I certainly don’t claim that I could do so by adopting a different perceptual position. But I found I was able to control by breathing (overcoming my tendency to hyperventilate during attacks), and I was able to stop vomiting. I even found that I was able to think clearly, and so I would use the time during attacks to plan what I was going to do when the attack wore off.
“Just decide it’s not the running.”
My vertigo attacks were getting worse as I steadily increased my running, and I was becoming anxious that the two were related. Maybe running was not good for me. Maybe it was the cause of all my vertigo problems. Maybe I wasn’t a runner after all. Was I was just kidding myself and it was time to take my running shoes off once and for all?
It didn’t help that the vertigo attacks often happened when I was running, and the results could be very frightening. It was bad enough collapsing to the ground when you’re just walking around, but when you’re running at speed, injuries become all the more likely.
Of course, the running and vertigo were probably unrelated. I was running a lot and I was having a lot of vertigo attacks. It was only natural that the two would, upon occasion, coincide. While rationally, I knew this, on another level I was drawn to try and find connections. To make some kind of sense of my sickness. To give myself the illusion of control. When in fact, I was achieving the precise opposite. The belief that the vertigo was caused by running was taking control away from me. It was driving me away from something that I loved.
Fortunately, at this point a good friend intervened with some sound advice. He listened very carefully to everything I had to say about the possible connection between my running and my vertigo attacks, and then he said simply, “I think you’ve just got to decide that it’s not the running.”
He was right of course. I’d inadvertently allowed myself to adopt an unresourceful belief. I’d created in my head a self-limiting narrative that I couldn’t run because of my vertigo attacks, when in fact there was no evidence to support this. It gave me a good sob-story to tell my friends, but it wasn’t getting me any closer to my goal of becoming a fit, healthy, confident runner. Quite the opposite in fact. It was drawing me back into the role of being an unlucky sick person.
My friend’s advice was clear and simple. I just had to decide. It was ultimately a choice between two different, conflicting beliefs, with no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Either the running was causing the vertigo or it wasn’t. If I stopped running, I’d never find out. If I carried on running, then at least I’d be doing what I wanted to do, and I might find the vertigo was unrelated.
Putting on my running shoes again felt great. As I resumed my running, I intuitively knew it was the right decision. Far from causing the vertigo, I chose to believe instead that the running might cure it. After all, my consultant had told me that vertigo was often brought about by poor circulation to the inner ear. Surely improving my cardiovascular system would help with this, I reasoned.
I carried on running, and the vertigo attacks continued. But steadily, over the months that followed, their frequency and intensity declined. Today, I no longer suffer from vertigo at all. Of course, I don’t know if it was the running that cured it, any more than I know if it was the running that caused it. What I do know is that, in the absence of evidence one way or the other, believing the running could help was a resourceful belief for me. I’ll always be grateful for my friend’s simple advice that day: “I think you’ve just got to decide...”
The red queen’s race
Some cancers can be “cured,” others, like mine, can only be knocked back into remission. But whatever your prognosis, no one is ever going to tell you that “it’s all over, that cancer is not coming back.” The truth is we just don’t know.
So every few months, cancer survivors return to their hospital for a checkup. And during a routine checkup, my doctors found a new lump. A CT scan was required, in order to determine if the cancer was back.
The scan was scheduled for the day after the Bath Half Marathon, my first big competitive race. I’d been training for it for months, and I was fitter than I had ever been in my life before, even though, ironically, I could be back on chemotherapy within days.
In Lewis Carol’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen presides over an absurd race, where the contestants must run very fast just to stay still. Being on chemotherapy had reminded me of the Red Queen’s Race. I’d taken great strides forward in my personal development, just to stay in the same place - like running on a treadmill. When the treatment was over, I had carried on running - quite literally - and I felt that I had been making great progress, leaving the treadmill far behind me. Now, the treatment was looming again, and very soon, I thought I’d be back on the treadmill.
Never stop running
Using all of the skills I’d learned during treatment, I focused entirely on the race that day, and I put in a great time for me, placing within the top 10 percentile. When the scan results came through, they were good news, and I celebrated by signing up for more races.
I was moving forwards again. But as I mused over how differently things might have turned out, it suddenly struck me. I’d never left the treadmill, and I never would. There would always be ups and downs in life. Sometimes I’d have to work hard just to stay still. Other times, the treadmill would come to a stop, and I’d hurtle forwards. The Red Queen’s Race is just life. What is important is to keep running.
“You must be very frightened”
After I’d got the hang of running, I started looking for my next challenge. I was taking delight in doing things that I would never have done before the cancer. Things that would surprise and shock my friends.
I joined a gym, for the first time in my life. The running had resulted in me losing a lot of weight, and my hospital was becoming concerned, because unexpected weight loss is a “b symptom” for lymphoma. I thought, what better way to prove I was well than to start putting on weight, but by building muscle rather than fat.
My gym instructor was an energetic young twenty-something. His impressive physique made it patently obvious that he could impart to me the skills that I was looking for. I think I seemed impossibly old to him at first, and he found it amazing that I’d never been to the gym before. The challenge ahead of him in making me fit was evidently daunting. He said “So this is really the first time you’ve ever been to the gym?! You must be very frightened.”
I smiled, remembering my nurse’s words twelve months ago, where she had told me much the same thing. I thought about what a long way I’d come in such a short space of time. Before my cancer experience, I certainly would have been intimidated, both by the gym, and by my instructor. But that wasn’t how I felt today.
“No”, I said, emphatically. “I feel intrigued. I’m really looking forward to doing this.”
Today, I’ve put the weight back on in muscle, and any anxieties from my doctors about weight loss are forgotten. And I’ve enjoyed learning about the gym so much that I’ve even become a qualified Personal Trainer, so that I can share some of my learnings with fellow cancer survivors.
I believe that we are drawn to the things we fear the most.
Some things stir powerful emotions in us, while other things do not. Sometimes, those emotions are “towards” emotions like desire, love and amusement. Other times, they are “away from” emotions like fear, disgust and hatred. And occasionally, it is a bit of both - we a drawn to something that repulses us.
A very good friend of mine is disgusted by anything that does not meet her high standards of hygiene. She has meticulous cleaning rituals that she must follow every morning before she starts work. These include spraying an air freshener around her desk, wet wiping her desk and disinfecting her keyboard. While I don’t take my cleaning rituals as seriously as my friend, I do recognize the same structure within me. While I was on chemo, I became fastidious about cleanliness, because my immune system was weakened and I had to avoid infections. Today I still carry around an anti-bacterial hand-wash in my bag, which I use when I’m out and about. But my friend takes hygiene to a whole other level.
Then, one day, my friend announced that she was planning a trip to travel around India. She seemed very excited about all the things she was going to see, but as she discussed it with friends, she became fearful, because people were telling her that India is a dirty place. She started to wonder if she could cope, and she postponed her trip.
I’ve read that for someone with a fear of spiders, a possible cure is for them to hold a great big tarantula in their hands. I suspect that there’s some truth to this, because it’s entirely consistent with my own experience. Before cancer, I was a hypochondriac - I was terrified of getting ill. I was also terrified of doctors, hospitals and hypodermic needles. By the time I had finished my treatment, I was no longer scared of any of these things.
I discovered that there is a simple three step process to this:
- 1: feel scared
- 2: be brave
- 3: no long scared
In other words, an act of bravery is the process of overcoming a fear. What constitutes bravery is as unique as we are. For someone who is scared of spiders, it is an act of bravery to hold a tarantula. For someone who is scared of not disinfecting their computer keyboard every morning, it is an act of bravery to visit India.
Of course, I didn’t have any choice about undergoing chemotherapy, so that arguably didn’t involve much bravery. But ironically, one of the things that I learned in the process is that admitting we feel scared is an act of bravery in itself. Perhaps the ultimate act of bravery. It is inevitable that from time to time we will experience events that scare us. By acknowledging our fear, we can become brave, and by becoming brave, we can let go of our fear.
BC/AC - Before cancer, after cancer
In an NLP training session, a delegate pointed out to me that I had a pattern in my thinking of framing everything in terms of being before cancer and after cancer (BC/AC). That everything before cancer was a problem state, and everything after was a desired state. I was intrigued by this observation. While I recognise it’s an oversimplification of the facts, I realised this framing is an important part of how I stick with my health and fitness goals.
There is a direction to this idea of BC/AC, and some powerful presuppositions. At the core of this framing is the idea that anything after cancer must be better than anything before. Another presupposition is that any unresourceful strategy before cancer has an equivalent resourceful strategy afterwards. And then perhaps most fundamentally, there is the presupposition that there is no going back. It is entirely impossible for me to return to the before cancer state, because I can’t un-experience cancer - or in other words, I can’t undo what has been done. That is why I know I’ll stick with these changes in my life. There simply is no other way. Trying to go back to how I was BC would be like trying to forget all that I went through during cancer treatment and recovery. Impossible.
No going back
A friend told me recently that they saw me as a very determined individual: someone who makes plans and sticks to them. I was flattered by this, but I didn’t recognize the resemblance. I understand how it might appear that way to other people, but reality is rather different. It’s true that since my cancer treatment I’ve successful set and achieved many goals for myself, but I don’t think this is because I’m determined. I think it’s simply because I don’t believe that going back is an option for me. It’s simply impossible for me to return to my old behaviors because if I ever did, I believe the cancer would catch up with me and I would die. So the only option for me is to continue doing what I’m doing.
If a shark stops swimming, oxygenated water is no longer pumped through its gills and it dies, so it keeps on swimming. That’s not an act of determination of the shark’s part. It’s just the way it is to be a shark. And so it is with me. I stick at what I’m doing - whether it’s running, or gym, or learning to surf, or studying my personal trainer qualifications, because that what I do - that’s who I am - and there really is no alternative.
I have no wish to go back to the way I was before cancer, but there really isn’t any option for me to do so anyway, so like a shark, I keep swimming.
Framing my appointment card
Every outpatient at my hospital is issued with an appointment card. This pocket-sized slip of folded paper features line entries for each hospital appointment, scribbled in by a nurse or administrator. I had been using my card for three years. Each and every time I’d had chemo, an entry had been hand scrawled into it. Every time I’d visited the hospital, the card had been hastily stowed in my pocket.
After the chemo was complete, and my appointments became less frequent, the card was not filling up as quickly, but eventually the day came when the final line on the card was filled in.
As my eyes gazed over all the entries on the completed card, I reflected upon the incredible journey that it represented for me. It had been the toughest time in my life, and it had also been a time of incredible learning and personal development. There had been times when I had despised this little piece of card, and all that it stood for.
And now one of the hospital administrators was proposing to throw it away and issue me a new one instead. Somehow that just didn’t seem to be right. I asked if I could keep it, and she gave it back to me with a shrug and a puzzled look. On my way home from the hospital I took it to the picture frames and got it framed beautifully, like a work of fine art.
Now it hangs on my wall in pride of place. This crinkled, battered sheeting of blue sugar paper, with multi-coloured pen scrawlings in many different hand writing is a record of one of the toughest times in my life. One of the most important times. One of the most transformative time. Of course, I’m not really attached to that piece of paper, but I have become very attached to the memory of that time in my life, and everything that it means to me. That old appointment card is a powerful anchor. And it keeps me anchored.
Re-learning how to learn: being foolish
On the fifth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, I’m in Lanzarote with my brother, and we’re learning to surf for the first time in our lives. Our instructor, Richie, has a lean, wiry muscular body, an even tan, sun-bleached blond hair and the graceful, easy manners that seem to be an intrinsic part of surfing culture.
We’re watching a sixteen year old Swedish kid catching an unbroken wave with ease, effortlessly gliding just ahead of the white water. Richie laughs and comments that Scandinavian kids somehow “get” surfing almost immediately. For others, like ourselves, the process can take a while longer.
Many people think that kids are natural learners. They just pick things up faster than adults. Whether it’s learning a language, learning to drive a car or learning to surf. But I see it differently. Kids are good at learning because they have to do so much of it. Not just at school, but in every aspect of their lives. Everything is new to them. So they have to be humble. They have to listen to feedback and observe carefully. They have to be ready to try and fail and try again.
If you’re scared of making a fool of yourself, you’ll never learn a foreign language, and if you’re scared of wiping out, you’ll never learn to surf.
Something seems to happen to most of us in our teenage years, where our minds become a little more set in their ways. A little more brittle perhaps. We’ve acquired the skills we need to get by in life, and we decide that’s enough. We become unwilling or unable to learn any more. We become rusty at learning. It becomes “too late” for us to learn a foreign language. Or we’re “too old” to learn to surf.
I don’t believe this for one second. We just become out of practice. We need to re-learn how to learn. We need to reconnect with the curious and humble child within us. The child who is ready to try and fail - who is ready to wipeout, then rub the seawater from their eyes, grab their surfboard and catch the next wave.
When I was going through cancer treatment, I had to learn a lot to survive. I learned to try new approaches. I learned about NLP. I learned to meditate. And I learning to take control of my thinking. My learning muscles, that had been unused for so long, they were a little sore at first, but as with any part of the body, they quickly adapted to new stimulus.
As a consequence, learning tasks that would have been daunting to me before, like learning to run competitively, learning to use the gym, learning to become a personal trainer, became much easier to me. Continuous learning has become a habit for me, and one that I especially enjoy. I’ve found that learning even adds a new dimension to holidays. Hence, where I am today, sitting on a beautiful beach in Lanzarote with Richie, my surfing instructor, preparing to grab my board, attach my leg rope, paddle out into the waves and make a fool of myself once again.
As I’ve finally realized, fools are in fact the smart ones, because we’re ready, willing and able to learn new stuff.
Learning to turn turtle
As I bob around at the back of the lineup, waiting to catch my next wave, I realize that big part of re-learning how to learn is learning to surf the waves in my mind.
Over the past few days, as I’ve attended the surf school, my mind has been lurching around like ocean swell, from peaks of optimism, where I really believe I’m getting it and through troughs of despair, where I just can’t seem to get up on my board at all. The solution is, of course, to be aware of my emotional state and to manage my mood accordingly. Catching an unresourceful though process is far easier than catching the right wave, but it will never give you a good ride. It can lead only to a wipeout, where you fall off your board and into the ocean in a sprawling, undignified manner.
So the skilled learner gets used to allowing those waves of despair to wash over them, leaving them behind. The waves that tell you “you’ll never learn how to do this” or “you’re not strong enough to do this” or “you’re too old to do this” or “you don’t have good enough balance to do this” will inevitably pass by, like the ocean swell that’s too choppy to ever give you a good ride.
Surfers learn to “turn turtle” by flipping over onto the underside of their boards and passing beneath the waves that they don’t fancy, saving themselves for the perfect wave that is going to deliver them the ride of their lives. And so it is that anyone wishing to learn in life must get practiced at turning turtle to make it through the unresourceful mental waves, and wait for the perfect learning wave that will surely follow.
“I’m going to do it properly this time”
A song that’s been going round in my head a lot recently is “This Time” by The Feeling. It has a lyric that goes “I’m going to do it properly this time. I’m going to get it right. Gonna get it right. And if my love escapes me this time, I’ll be alright. Be alright. Because I did it right.”
These lyrics perfectly encapsulate how I feel about my After Cancer life. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance, and that it’s an opportunity to do it properly this time. To live my life properly this time. And while I don’t know what the outcome of my cancer will be I do know this: if I truly believe I got it right this time, then even if the cancer one day kills me, I will be happy.
At the age of 37, I had finally become an adult
During the Second World War, Queen Elizabeth (the queen mother) famously remarked “now I can look the East End in the eye”. Previously, the East End had born the brunt of the bombing raids. This was the first time that the palace had been hit.
After my experience with cancer, I had a better understanding of what she had meant. The cancer had been like a bombing raid. It gave me a shared understanding with other cancer patients and survivors. But it went further than that. It had given me a connection with anyone who had been through a tough experience - and, one way or another, that’s most of us.
For example, if someone cried in front of me, I previously had no idea what to do. I never used to know what to say or do at a funeral. Comforting someone with a hug at the right moment was outside of my behavioral vocabulary. I felt that it was such a big deal that someone had died, that anything I might say about it would seem false, or even disrespectful. Now, when I saw someone was upset, I could relate to them. Instinctively I knew how to respond.
At the age of 37, I’d finally become an adult.
- Always stay hopeful, but don’t predicate your happiness on a specific outcome
- Embrace every experience, and look for the positives - there are always more than you anticipate
- Live in the moment. Make the most of now, since no one knows what will happen tomorrow
- Focus on what you can do, that gives your life meaning
- If you want to know what you should be doing more of, listen to your unconscious mind
- Explore what the positive meaning of cancer is for you
- Seek out activities that bring pleasure now, and build into something more over time
- Don’t be shy to take advantage of the positives - enjoy the attention!
- Experience each day with a heightened intensity, now that you know how precious and fragile life really is
- Use your experiences to build new and unexpected connections with people
- Look out for well intentioned mind reading, and challenge it if you feel that it is limiting your potential for recovery
- Mind and body are one system. There’s a triangle of well being, that if you keep in balance, everything else falls into place: diet, exercise, rest.
Embracing every experience
Recovering from cancer is not about leaving the disease behind or running away from it. It’s about embracing it as a part of your life. It is about accepting what is, and adapting. It’s about carrying it with you for ever, and realising that it’s OK. That the experience has become a part of you, and that you are richer and stronger as a consequence. And I believe that this insight, which I found to be true for myself through painful experience, can be applied to any experience, by anyone.